The just concluded Mayors’ Conference in Providence was a big embarrassment to all concerned: the state of Rhode Island its the capital city, Mayor Cicilline, the protesting Providence firefighters, and especially the Democrats and the Obama administration. With about 100 members of the Obama administration missing in action, the conference could not conduct the kind of much needed business it was intended to address, and there’s no way anything else on the agenda could replace it. Mayors and their staffs came to Providence with the expectation that they would have direct access to a host of federal agencies and Administration officials to discuss their pressing needs amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Instead they mostly sat around talking amongst themselves.
While there is lots of blame to go around from this debacle, let me zero in on whom I take to be the main culprits: the cowardly Obama administration and the leadership of the Providence firefighters. First off, what is there about a union picket line that will stop Democrats dead in their tracks like the Ebola virus? This was an important conference at a time of economic crisis. Did the Obama folks stop to weigh the consequences of not finding a way to get inside the Providence Convention Center? Apparently not, as it was quickly declared, “We do not cross picket lines ever.” Are Democrats so cravenly beholden to labor unions that they won’t conduct the nation’s business should there be a local labor dispute? I guess so, and that’s a shameful indictment of them.
Regarding the Providence firefighters, despite the fine job they do (no one takes issue with that) their union, Local 799 is one of the state’s most recalcitrant public employee unions, on a par with the correctional officers. Like the Brotherhood at the ACI, their elected leaders have them stuck perpetually out of contract and always battling tooth and nail, never finding sufficient reason to compromise. It certainly must make for a difficult situation for the members to be in. Local 799 has been without a contract for almost a decade, and it is important to remember that their last contract expired under Mayor Cianci’s tenure. Cianci’s departure from the scene spared him their inevitable fury; instead it’s Mayor Cicilline who they now vilify, and by their actions over the Mayors’ Conference, deliberately embarrassed.
Their union boss, Paul Doughty, reaps the rewards of being head of the union while his fellow union members are the ones to suffer. Like all of these union leaders, Doughty doesn’t have much time left over from his union duties to actually work; as an example, when the controversy over the picketing first surfaced he was away at a conference in Miami, spending his members’ dues.
Unions and Democrats have always been joined at the hip, and the election of Barack Obama comes with payback for Labor’s support. Obama, coming from Democratic controlled Chicago politics, knows all about this. The Labor movement’s payback is legislation before Congress that would provide a big boost to Labor’s flagging fortunes and dwindling member rolls. It’s misleadingly called the Employee Free Choice Act or EFCA for short, but it should be called The Election Payback Bill. It’s the most disturbing legislative initiative against business and free enterprise that I have ever encountered. EFCA’s purpose is clear cut: make it easier for unions to gain a foothold in non-union companies.
To accomplish this union organizing purpose, EFCA would take away the secret ballot by which workers privately voted their preference regarding whether to form a union in their workplace. Now union organizers and employers will know how an employee voted, depriving the worker of the basic right to privacy and exposing him/her to pressure and potential retaliation. The law as its presently written does allow for a secret ballot in principle, but not really in practice.
EFCA is a direct threat to American enterprise. If you think greater union power is good for the country, just look what the unions did to the auto companies. Should the Democrats in Congress pass EFCA (it has the President’ support and of course the support of all four of our elected representatives), it will further erode the vitality and competitiveness of many businesses, especially smaller privately owned companies. When it comes to preserving American competiveness, the Democratic-controlled Congress could do no worse harm than making EFCA the law of the land.
When it comes to the emerging wind energy business, Rhode Island seems to be heading in the right direction. The state’s developing association with Deepwater Wind LLC, which wants to erect over 100 wind harnessing turbines off Block Island to generate electricity, has the potential to jump start a new economic model for a state which is clearly lacking one. When you think of it, it is quite fitting for the Ocean State take the lead in developing offshore wind energy. Remember, this is the place where the American Industrial Revolution was born. Clean alternative energy technologies such as wind, wave and solar are going to be critical to our future, as America reinvents itself by turning its manufacturing model from blue collar to green collar.
Deepwater wants to build two wind farms off the Rhode Island coast at a cost of $1.5 billion. One farm would be about three miles from Block Island, the second about 15 miles out in the Atlantic. Unlike the hotly contested Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, which powerful local interests continue to stymie, there is apparently no organized opposition to the Rhode Island plan. The wind farm three miles off Block Island would barely be visible from the island; the one 15 miles off our coast would be over the horizon. Both the Governor and the General Assembly are in agreement in support of this venture, although there are differences yet to resolve regarding long term contracts between alternative energy suppliers like Deepwater and National Grid, the state’s principal electricity provider. Last year the Governor vetoed the Deepwater legislation passed by the General Assembly because of the snafu over National Grid. It will be absolutely critical for the two branches of government to work out the differences and get a bill to the Governor’s desk this spring that he will sign. Another year’s delay and we could see the business go elsewhere.
With legislation in place, the Deepwater project can begin moving ahead. It will also send a strong message that Rhode Island is open for business when it comes to wind energy technology. There is great potential here: Deepwater plans to hire around 800 workers to assemble and install the turbines; they intend to use land at Quonset Point as their assembly facility. Once established at Quonset the assembly area could become a long-term operation, and by its presence attract other companies involved in other facets of wind energy technology. Already Aeronautica Wind Power of Plymouth, MA, a manufacturer of wind turbines, is looking at establishing a manufacturing site in the Quonset Business Park.
There is a grand future vision to have much of the upper Eastern seaboard become a giant offshore wind farm – creating a potential $50 billion market for offshore wind energy production. Rhode Island could become a leading player in that market. Add the prospect for greater URI-centered oceanographic research facilities and activities calling Quonset Point home and we will have gone a long way to actually fulfilling Quonset’s economic development potential - and at far less cost and delay than attempting to become a Johnny-come-lately in the deep water port business. I have long agreed with the Governor’s stand on the deep water port issue, despite the railings of the state’s major daily newspaper; a deep water container port at Quonset might have been a viable objective 20 years ago, but at this point in time its day has passed. The fact is, Quonset is doing well enough on its own right now, as even the Special Legislative Study Commission on Quonset, appointed by the RI Senate, admitted recently, citing “impressive progress.” You know Quonset is doing okay when there’s no berthing room left for the USS Saratoga battle carrier museum.
America’s economic progress going forward will be defined by how rapidly we can create good paying green collar jobs in new technologies to replace the millions of old line manufacturing jobs lost in recent decades. Those jobs, we know, are not going to come back. But investment in and development of new manufacturing technologies – especially those centered around “clean” technologies – will represent the wave of the future. Rhode Island, because of its long manufacturing tradition and proximity to the abundant ocean, is strategically positioned to capture a leading share of this 21st Century marketplace, and, in doing so, reinvent our economy for the next generation. Let’s hope we do it.